Johnny Burnette and the Rock n Roll Trio – Train Kept a Rollin’

How one little guitar riff punched a hole into Rock n Roll

Johnny-Burnette-boxer1The Burnette brothers were a wild bunch. Straight out of the Memphis farm fields and into the boxing rings, these country boys carried a bit of punch with them when they swung an uppercut into the burgeoning field of Rock n Roll. They were among only a handful of early rockers who were actually born and raised in Memphis, unlike most of the Sun Records artists like Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, who were from other parts of the south. Also, all three members of the Rock and Roll Trio were amateur boxers. In fact, Dorsey Burnette first met Burlison at a Golden Gloves championship.

In 1956, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio recorded Train Kept a Rollin’  in a rockabilly/early rock and roll style. The Trio’s version of this cover song features guitar lines in what many historians consider to be the first recorded example of intentionally distorted guitar in rock music.

The Trio’s guitarist, Paul Burlison, explained that he noticed the sound after accidentally dropping his amplifier, which dislodged a power tube and later, “whenever I wanted to get that sound, I’d just reach back and loosen that tube”.

Johnny-Burnette-Trio-with-Gene-Vincent3[I was] in the dressing room with the loose tube. Johnny [Burnett] was playing an E chord and I was playing in a G position but I’d take my fingers off and play in octaves [using the thumb and middle or index finger]. He wasn’t singing ‘The Train Kept A-Rollin”, it was another song, and I got to doing doom diddle doom daddle doom daddle … [Later] I told Owen Bradley about it at the Barn, where we cut the stuff, and he said, ‘let me hear it’. So I started doing it and he said, ‘Well, let’s do it’

Originally written and recorded by Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, Train Kept a Rollin’ is about a guy who is blown away by a woman, but he has to act cool to make sure he doesn’t scare her away. The train rolling is in reference to sex.

Give a listen to the Original ‘Train Kept a Rollin’

Written by Tiny Bradshaw, Howard Kay, and Lois Mann, this song was originally performed by Tiny Bradshaw’s Big Band in 1951.

The Yardbirds

English band brought this rockabilly song and guitar riff out of obscurity and into the 60’s rock n roll scene.
The song is based on Johnny Burnette’s adaptation, but Beck biographer Annette Carson comments their “propulsive, power-driven version, however, deviated radically from the original … [their] recording plucked the old Rock & Roll Trio number from obscurity and turned it into a classic among classics”. The Yardbirds’ lead guitarist Jeff Beck, who is a fan of early rockabilly, said that he introduced the song the group: “They just heard me play the riff, and they loved it and made up their version of it”

Aerosmith version “Train Kept A-Rollin’

In 1974, Aerosmith brought “Train Kept A-Rollin'” into the hard-rock mainstream. Steve Tyler said ” I had seen the Yardbirds play somewhere the previous summer with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the band … In Westport [at their supporting gig on October 22, 1966] we found out that Jeff had left the band and Jimmy was playing lead guitar by himself. I watched him from the edge of the stage and all I can say is that he knocked my tits off. They did ‘Train Kept A-Rollin” and it was just so heavy. They were just an un-fuckin’-believable band.”

Did Aerosmith ruin a perfectly good guitar riff? Probably, and it’s maybe the best they could do in their 70’s drug infused translation, but that’s another article for another time. They did, however, bring the song into the 70’s One thing’s for sure, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio recorded Train Kept a Rollin’  with a rockabilly/early rock and roll style, and one of the most memorable guitar riffs was born.